Previously unthinkable selections face acid test against Boks - Andy Goode
Eddie Jones might be insisting that this isn’t an acid test for some of his callow England players but tests don’t come much bigger than facing the world champions at Twickenham.
Starting against South Africa with a front row of Bevan Rodd, Jamie Blamire and Kyle Sinckler would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago but that is the position he’s in now through a combination of bad luck and choice.
Joe Marler is waiting in the wings after coming out of his quarantine period on the eve of the game but hookers Blamire and Nic Dolly have just four caps and only eight Premiership starts between them as they prepare to face possibly the two best front rows in the world.
It’s tough enough facing Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane but even if they do achieve parity with them, Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch are the most formidable scrummaging trio in world rugby coming off the bench. If that isn’t an acid test, then I don’t know what is.
Nobody is expecting this England front row to get the upper hand, they just need to stop the Springboks from earning scrum penalty after scrum penalty as they did against Wales and Scotland. The Boks won nine scrum penalties in those two games and that is key to their game plan as well as the kicking game.
Joe Marchant is a surprise selection on the wing but Jones has explained that a lot of that is to do with the kicking assault that everyone knows is coming. As everybody says, you know what’s coming from South Africa but counteracting it is another thing entirely.
Many have tried and failed but England will have learned their own lessons first-hand from the 2019 World Cup final and the template for how to beat the Boks has been shown by other teams not so long ago.
Cue Marcus Smith. He doesn’t have the experience of Owen Farrell alongside him this week so he has the keys to the attack in his hands alone for the first time and England have to keep the ball as much as possible and move South Africa around.
That’s what Ireland did to New Zealand last week in a way as they had 60% possession and 65% territory and forced the All Blacks to make a massive 231 tackles. England will need a similar level of performance if they are to beat the world champions.
Australia also provided the blueprint when they beat the Springboks in back-to-back games in September. They did have less possession and territory but they moved them around and, crucially, they made the most of their opportunities with over a 70% conversion rate from their entries into the opposition 22 in both games.
It’s almost a Harlequins style of rugby that England need to utilise and Smith should be backed to do it. He may only have four caps to his name and it goes without saying that this is the ultimate test for him too but he certainly doesn’t lack confidence and I think he’ll take it in his stride.
I met his dad at Twickenham last weekend and he said he absolutely loves the pressure and backs his ability against anyone so the stage is set for him.
If England do win and he shines alongside what I think is England’s best centre combination of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade, then it’ll give Eddie the best possible headache ahead of the Six Nations if Farrell is fit and ready to come back in.
Elsewhere in the side, Jones was never going to change the back row of Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry after last week but this is a real examination of Curry’s skills as a number eight as well.
We all know about his ability at the breakdown and in other areas but he isn’t a traditional number eight and England’s pack might just be going backwards, which isn’t something he’s been used to, so controlling the ball at the base and decision-making will be more difficult.
This is the 13th and final game of a long season for the Springboks with months spent away from families and friends and, although they haven’t shown too many signs of waining in the past couple of weeks, England will be hoping they’re a bit fatigued.
That may be clutching at straws as the world champions looked in fine fettle against Scotland. We all know what’s coming and Eddie Jones can try to play it down but whatever way you look at it, this is most definitely an acid test for his new-look England side.
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